Today is Earth Day. Of all the international days available to celebrate Earth Day may be the most worthy. Without our planet in good health where would we be? So it is a good opportunity to think about what designers can do to help keep the Earth in good shape.

The first issue that springs to mind is the huge amount of packaging that designers are guilty of producing – not on their own, of course. Business clients wanting their brands to stand out from the rest and the buying public being suspicious of products that look a bit different all help promote the ever-growing mountain of discarded packaging. Persuading customers to change attitudes may be difficult. In China, for instance, there is a tradition of gift-giving where the packages have an excess of wrapping and layers. Yet there was hope this Easter when chocolate eggs in Britain boasted “no plastic bits” on the cardboard boxes. Forward-thinking designers could push the way forward. But what would you say to a supermarket with no packaging on the shelves? How would it work in our times of consumerism?

Then there is the issue of paper and paper-production. In the U.S. the paper industry alone uses more water than any other one user. Recycling paper has its own problems, especially in the washing out of the inks. Yet customers nowadays do want papers that seem to be recycled. Appearance is everything – it doesn’t really matter if these are cheaper or actually recycled. Matt papers are in fashion in the western design world with only Russia liking gloss paper.  In fact, it could be argued that producing paper from managed forests is actually a better way forward than recycling. After all managed forests provide trees that give off oxygen and they also provide jobs for humans. Paper was never a threat to the rain forests (beef production being a much worse threat). Several paper companies are trying to work cleverly with resources. See for example Finch Paper, who are very aware of their siting in the Adirondacks. They have an interesting blog at http://finchpaper.com/our-environment/finch-in-the-forest/finch-in-the-forest-blog/ and their main website is at http://finchpaper.com. I also read recently that humans have weakened the world’s population of trees by using all the best ones and leaving the weaker specimens to reproduce. That’s a sad thought for Earth Day.

The recent one-day Social Impact Design Summit held in New York in February suggested that a way forward was to build into society more systematic testing of design across all disciplines to check that they were socially responsible actions. There is a lack of education about recognition of the value of this. Also there are not many incentives globally for business, let alone designers, to consider this aspect of their production. Users at all levels need to be involved, which includes customers. See http://www.cooperhewitt.org/blog/2012/03/02/intelligent-coalitions for more information and a great notebook page of issues from the summit.

There seems to be an uphill struggle to redress some of the problems. But I don’t think it is hopeless. Just a challenge.